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DVD SAVANT

I Vampiri


I Vampiri
Image Entertainment
1956 / B&W / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 78m. / The Devil's Commandment / Street Date July 3, 2001 / 24.99
Starring Gianna Maria Canale, Carlo D'Angelo, Dario Michaelis, Wandisa Guida, Giselle, Angelo Galassi, Renato Tontini
Cinematography Mario Bava
Production Designer Beni Montresor
Film Editor Roberto Cinquini
Original Music Franco Mannino, Román Vlad
Writing credits J.V. Rhemo story and dialogue by Riccardo Freda, Piero Regnoli, Rik Sjostrom
Produced by Luigi Carpentieri, Ermanno Donati and Piero Donati
Directed by Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This is one for the "who'd've thunk it?" category. Savant has seen a few minutes of a nigh-unwatchable greymarket tape of I Vampiri (known as The Devil's Commandment on old television broadcasts) but the consensus has always been that the original movie might never be shown here. Even the Internet Movie Database entry on the film appears to have some flaws in its info (surely to be corrected quickly now).

This is the first Italian horror film since the silents and the beginning of modern European Horror. Far more famous for what it represents than in itself, I Vampiri once existed only as a collection of confusing production stills and posters, always alluded to but rarely examined. Now it's here on Image DVD, and with its appearance the genre base has widened once again.

Synopsis:

1957. A string of murders of young women terrorizes Paris and reporter Pierre Lantin (Dario Michaelis) is nosing about in police business in a journalistic bid to uncover the killer. Giselle (Gianna Maria Canale), the niece of the reclusive Duchess Du Grand, pursues Pierre romantically, but he resists out of scorn for her aristocratic family its creepy castle. Pierre's father suffered a broken heart at the Duchess' hand, and Pierre doesn't want to recycle the pain in his generation. Pierre eventually narrows his sights on a small group of students only to have one of them kidnapped before he can fully investigate her. It turns out that the situation is more horrible than thought possible, with an addict (Paul Müller) who kidnaps for dope, a scientist who fakes his own death and a noblewoman whose beauty is maintained through atrocious crimes.

Savant's first awareness of I Vampiri was not very auspicious. The June 4 1956 Variety review from Rome was a scant two paragraphs long, saying little except that it was "strictly for devotees of the genre, with its export chances limited." It added that "black and white CinemaScope lensing appears a waste." It was also listed as being 90 minutes long. Variety was notorious for slamming foreign product being positioned for import, as if defending US domination of the movie world, but it also looks as if Riccardo Freda's film just didn't merit much attention.

This genesis film of the European Horror revolution seems to have come precisely one year too soon, before the Hammer breakout that made horror a staple of every country's output. Seeing I Vampiri sheds more light on why it wasn't a smash hit: made by a member of the Italian censor board, it so lightly touches on its horror content that it doesn't make all that much of an impression as a thriller. The story has four or five killings but only two are shown on-screen. The female victims are kidnapped by burly henchmen and given injections of sedatives, but none of the vampiric (or in this case, medico-vampiric) attacks on them are shown. Even Bela Lugosi was allowed to close in on his prey before a fadeout, but the only hint we are given of exactly what's happening to the girls here is in dialogue references to needle marks found on their corpses. The "vampire" figure's only aggressive act is to shoot a male victim with a gun! Under these circumstances it's unlikely that even Italian audiences would be aware of a vibrant new genre a'borning.

The unofficial directing team of Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava worked in Rome on a film that takes place in Paris with a tiny budget and only a twelve-day schedule. They only partly realized their goal, as the production is very uneven. Indifferent, static scenes of dull police - journalist interaction dominate for the first half, after which we finally start seeing atmospheric night exteriors and some full scenes inside the moody Castle Du Grand. The camerawork is rather uneven, with what Savant bets is a really inadequate early 'Scope lens, probably "dumped" in Italy when better ones were made available here in the USA. In some shots the lens gives people the CinemaScope Mumps, and can't seem to find focus in extreme closeup inserts.

(some moderate spoilers intrude from this point on)

The highpoints of the film are the transformations of the (gloriously beautiful) Giselle Du Grand into her crone persona as the Duchess, handled in the glory of "StrussVision."  1, The effect is repeated a couple of times to diminished effect. We don't even get to see the actual demise of the Duchess.

While not really a great horror film, I Vampiri is priceless new territory for EuroHorror historians. Here we see a movie that was directed by two key EuroHorror talents working in what must have been a big rush. It looks to have been a heavy influence on Eyes without a Face: I can see Georges Franju looking for shocking cultural territory in which to plant his Blood of Beasts sensibility, seeing this show and saying to himself, "The heck with Cocteau's fairy tales, I'm going to graft my surreal ideas onto pulp-maudit subject material." The similarities are obvious, with Franju improving on all of the details: bizarre experiments on beautiful girls to benefit a hidden woman's beauty; a doglike servant procuring the victims via chloroform attacks, etc. Jésus Franco must also have seen the lowbudget possibilities in this gold vein, and set (is this correct?) his Gritos en la Noche in Paris as well. Assistant director Piero Regnoli's subsequent vampire movie La Amante del Vampiro borrows the idea of the main vampire being an immobile "queen bee," to whom victims are brought; he too saw the need to push the limits of censorship that curb this initial film.  2

I Vampiri disappoints with its lack of real vampire excitement, mostly dull characters and a terrible attempt to represent Paris through some pitiful matte-work. Assuming he did them, they are the only Bava effects I've seen that are simple failures. But the film's significance is immediately apparent. Some of the film's visuals do indeed convince that this is the real start of the Italian Horror film. And there's also the lovely Gianna Maria Canale to admire, already familiar to us from the next year's Hercules.


The quality of Image Entertainment's I Vampiri DVD is nothing short of miraculous. Somebody somewhere came up with a flawless picture (an English language one, judging by the writing in the insert shots) and great sounding English and Italian tracks. Savant immediately jumped up at the sound of the Roman Vlad music, which resembles a warm-up for his swooning, funereal score for The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. Glorious original poster art adorns the DVD keepcase cover (no more snappers for Image).

If ever a film needed good liner notes, this is the one. Tim Lucas explains much of the mystery around this fascinating title, including material added for The Devil's Commandment, like a gore shot of the Duchess' withered head that apparently isn't part of the original film. Lucas' insights are necessary to explain this film's place in Image's The Mario Bava Collection when it's signed by Riccardo Freda. From articles in Midi-Minuit Fantastique onward, it would seem to be the case that old-school director Freda regularly deferred to Bava and ditched several productions for Bava to finish in his absence. This seems unthinkable in the the "my movie-my credit-my marbles" reality of the rest of the film world. If Freda had to resort to such extremes to force Bava into the director's chair, maybe Bava was as self-effacing and unassertive as his biographers say he was. The IMDB makes mention of the movie being in "Black and White / Color," which would be interesting to hear explained or debunked.


I Vampiri was produced by the same names as the later DVD holdout, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. With such a rare wonder in our hands as this first-ever Spaghetti Horror film, can Hichcock, Caltiki il mostro immortale, Danse Macabre and Amanti d'oltretomba be far off? Image has pumped new blood into this fan's hopes. The next revelation-title expected from Image will be the original The Flesh and the Fiends, an unseen Peter Cushing body-snatcher movie!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
I Vampiri rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent - Dolby Digital Mono, Italian with English subtitles.
Supplements: Text filmographies, Photo and poster gallery
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 2, 2001


Footnotes:

1. My foolish made-up phrase for the red makeup / red camera filter trick used on the silent Ben-Hur and the 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by cameraman Karl Struss (who Savant met at a party in 1974!).
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2. Savant got to watch an Italian original of La Amante del Vampiro a while back. In it, a vampire queen merely waits for her vampire husband/servant to return from feeding on nubile young "ballerinas" and replenish her sanguinary quota. They both change radically in appearance depending on how much blood they've had. At the end, a foul-up leaves them stranded on the castle roof with the sun rising. I don't know how it's dubbed in the Anglo version entitled The Vampire and the Ballerina, but my Italian-speaking wife thought the end was almost a comedy - with the sun rising over the battlements, the vampire "wife" henpecks and browbeats her husband for his sloppy planning!
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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